The Dallas Cowboys had the second-ranked rushing attack in the NFL last year and the NFL’s leading rusher. But DeMarco Murray took his talents to division rival Philadelphia and the Cowboys could struggle while relying on Darren McFadden. If there is success in Big D this year, it’s because of the O-line.
The San Francisco 49ers had the league’s fourth-ranked rushing offense last year, but Frank Gore is in Indianapolis now and Carlos Hyde will have to pick up the slack for an offense that also lost tackle Anthony Davis to retirement.
With those changes, other teams in the NFC can step into the rushing spotlight. Our list of the projected 10 best running back situations is strong at the top but does a pronounced fade in the last few slots.
Depth: Ryan Matthews, Darren Sproles, Kenjon Barner, Matthew Tucker
The Eagles were as busy as any team in free agency, trading away RB LeSean McCoy but protecting their running game by signing Matthews as insurance while the Murray deal was still in limbo. Now the Eagles, who finished ninth in rushing last year, have more of a power game and better depth, and they still have Darren Sproles for a speed element.
Depth: Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard, DuJuan Harris
With Peterson back, the Vikings could significantly improve from their No. 14 ranking in a season of backfield turmoil. Peterson has something to prove after coming off his legal issues and the tag of now being a 30-year-old running back. McKinnon is a viable option, especially in a backup role.
Depth: Robert Turbin, Christine Michaels, Rod Smith, Thomas Rawls
Lynch has produced 1,200-yard seasons or better in each of the last four years and averaged 4.7 yards per carry. Like Peterson, he will slow at some point, but that doesn’t look like it is happening anytime soon. While Lynch ranked fourth in rushing yards last year, quarterback Russell Wilson tied for 16th, which is why the Seahawks have a dangerous rushing attack even if a pass play is called. Turbin doesn’t get much action, averaging four to five carries a game over the last three years, but he has a 4.0-yard career average.
Depth: Tre Mason, Benny Cunningham, Isaiah Pead, Chase Reynolds
Gurley was considered not only the most talented running back in the 2015 draft, but perhaps the most talented since Adrian Peterson was drafted in 2007. The biggest question with Gurley is his ability to stay healthy. If he can, it should significantly enhance the 20th-ranked rushing offense from 2014. But having Mason, who rushed for 765 yards last year, which ranked 20th in the NFL, is a decent insurance plan.
Depth: C.J. Spiller, Khiry Robinson, Edwin Baker, Tim Hightower, Marcus Murphy
With Drew Brees, it’s no wonder the Saints are considered primarily a passing team. They ranked No. 3 in passing offense, but they were a serviceable 13th in rushing offense. Ingram led the way with 964 yards and a 4.3-yard average, but the addition of Spiller should give them an explosive element that can spell Ingram, too. Without tight end Jimmy Graham, perhaps they will rely a bit more on their rushing game this year after opponents ran the ball 317 more times than the Saints last year.
Depth: James Starks, Rajion Neal, John Crockett, Alonzo Harris
Much like the Saints, the Packers are obviously a passing team first. Aaron Rodgers will do that to a coordinator, and the way Rodgers took care of the ball with only five interceptions in 520 attempts, that strategy makes perfect sense. However, Lacy was seventh in rushing yards with 1,139 and tied for third in rushing touchdowns. After him, however, depth is thin with Starks and almost no one of note after that.
Depth: Silas Redd, Matt Jones, Chris Thompson, Jordan Campbell
Morris was one of the bright spots in Washington last year, one of 13 NFL runners to surpass 1,000 yards. He’s done that each of his three seasons in the league, but his yardage and average per rush have decreased in each of those three seasons. There just isn’t much after Morris to excite Redskins fans when it comes to backfield depth, which is why they invested a third-round pick in Jones.
Depth: Fozzy Whitaker, Jordan Todman, Cameron Artis-Payne, Lee Ward, Mike Tolbert
Clearly the Panthers’ running game goes beyond its running backs. Stewart led the team with 809 yards, but quarterback Cam Newton is a big reason why the Panthers had the seventh-ranked rushing attack. He added 539 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per rush. Can rookie Cameron Artis-Payne improve their rushing attack even more?
Depth: Andre Williams, Shane Vereen, Orleans Darkwa, Akeem Hunt, Kenneth Harper
The Giants didn’t have the prototypical featured back in their offense, essentially splitting time between Andre Williams and Jennings. Williams finished with 721 yards and Jennings 639, but neither of them eclipsed 3.9 yards per carry, leading to the 23rd overall rushing attack in the league. Vereen might be able to help that in a part-time role.
10) Atlanta FalconsStarter: Devonta Freeman
Depth: Tevin Coleman, Antone Smith, Jerome Smith, Terron Ward
Dan Quinn will want to mold the Falcons into the Seahawks of the East – solid defense and a good running game. They’ve already got the receivers to be dangerous, but the running game will be the domain of Devonta Freeman, who averaged about four carries and 3.8 yards per carry last year, and rookie Tevin Coleman. It’s not ideal experience, but at least it should be a running attack on the rise.